BEIJING – Authorities closed a major hospital Thursday and put patients and 2,000 workers under observation for the SARS (search) virus, while across the city, anxious residents emptied grocery stores of rice, oil and frozen food in a bout of panic-buying.
The People's Hospital of Peking University (search) was the second medical facility to close because of severe acute respiratory syndrome, which killed four more people, raising Beijing's death toll to 39. Nationwide, 110 people have died from the disease, the Health Ministry said.
The hospital was being disinfected, and a university official said an unknown number of patients and 2,262 employees were moved for observation to another hospital, one of six designated to handle SARS.
However, a sign outside the building, which was cordoned off with police tape, said everything inside -- from patients to equipment -- was being kept there to stem the spread of the SARS virus.
The unversity official, who would only give his surname, Sun, said he didn't know how many patients were in the hospital; the hospital Web site says it has 1,020 beds. It was also unclear how many hospital staff might still be inside.
It was China's latest action this week -- along with the closing of public schools and plans for a quarantine -- to try to contain the respiratory disease. Its spread has touched on virtually every aspect of society, from tourism to business to sports.
The effects of the disease were also being felt -- though less profoundly -- in Canada. Both Toronto and Beijing were added Wednesday to a list of other Chinese cities as places travelers should avoid.
Toronto has far fewer cases than China and only 16 deaths, but the World Health Organization said it had exported SARS cases to other countries. Canadian officials, fearing a continued decline in business, asked WHO (search) to reconsider, but noted that was unlikely.
In Beijing, airport and train station were packed this week with people trying to flee.
Shoppers worried that officials might close stores as a preventive measure, or worse, quarantine all of Beijing, which would cut off food supplies. They have been rushing to clear the shelves of eggs, dumplings, soy sauce, rice and instant noodles.
At the Ito Yokado, an upscale grocery, a store clerk stacking towers of instant noodles apologized to shoppers seeking 22-pound bags of rice.
They were sold out of that size bag. "I'm sure more will be coming," said the clerk, Zhao Shuli.
China's soccer association postponed the start of the professional season, originally due to begin in mid-May, "to ensure the health and safety of the athletes, coaches and fans." It said new dates would be announced later.
On Wednesday, the city government announced it would invoke emergency measures to have people who were exposed to SARS quarantined at home and to restrict access to buildings and areas of possible infection. No other details were provided.
Earlier this month, the People's Armed Police General Hospital shut down after staff members fell ill with SARS.
Globally, more than 260 people have died of the virus and about 4,400 have been infected -- roughly half of those in the Chinese mainland. The World Health Organization reports that more than 2,000 people have recovered from the disease, which has no definitive treatment.
However, health officials continue to wrestle with calculations for the death rate for SARS. Hong Kong health officials revised their rate Thursday to 7.2 percent of all reported cases, from about 5 percent earlier.
The World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the death rate remains below 6 percent, but there is disagreement among various governments about how to calculate it.
The South China Morning Post quoted two experts as saying the mortality rate in Hong Kong might end up around 10 percent.
"Many academics estimated the death rate to be between 5 percent and 6 percent," Sydney Chung Sheung-chee, dean of medicine at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, was quoted as saying. "But a conservative estimate would be at least 10 percent."
In Singapore, Health Minister Lim Hng Kiang said Thursday that 8 to 9 percent of the island's SARS patients are dying. The city-state was refurbishing a drug rehabilitation camp to hold anyone who violates a harsh order to stay under home quarantine.
In Taiwan's capital Taipei, a hospital where a SARS outbreak was reported was sealed off on Thursday and all buildings within a half-mile radius from the hospital ordered disinfected.
Meanwhile, at the Peking University hospital in Beijing, yellow-and-white police tape cordoned off the sidewalk in front of the locked hospital's gate. A sign said patients, employees and all items used in the building were being held inside "in order to effectively control the spread of SARS and cut off the path of the epidemic."
Masked guards turned away people -- also masked -- who were trying to enter the building. Some were allowed to pass bags of food and clothes to guards, who handed them to masked hospital employees. Deliveries of newspapers and fruit were also brought to the gate and taken in.
"It looks like a war zone," said a taxi driver as he drove past.